In 1996 musicians Olaf Bender and friend Frank Bretschneider got together to make the German music label Rastermusik as a platform to create a bridge between music and art that would encompass music, art, design installations and multimedia. They eventually teamed up with Carsten Nicolai and in 1999 they merged their prospective labels to create Raster Noton.
Even though the outlook of the label was to create design based on a clean Bauhaus influenced aesthetic across multiple platforms, it has been the realm of music that the label has made their name. As well as releasing labels under their own aliases (Alva Noto, Byetone and Komet), they’ve collaborated and released with a range of artists in the contemporary music scene, such as Mika Vainio, Coil, Ryoji Ikeda, Atom™, and Senking (Who worked last year with Icelandic artists Reptilicus).
Despite the great changes encountered by artist and labels in the industry with the onset of digital culture, Raster Noton have stayed stead to their ideals of creating music that is simple and minimal in nature, released on meticulously designed formats that mark them out form their contemporaries.
During SONAR Reykjavik, we were treated with a performance from the label’s latest project. Diamond Version, a duo from Olaf and Carsten seeks to create a powerful techno and electro sound mixed with a live delivery system that seeks to overwhelm the body’s main senses. After their live performance on the Friday evening of the festival, the Grapevine met with Olaf Bender at Harpa to discuss man versus the machine, the role of technology in today’s society and what Icelandic music was taking his fancy.
Hello there Olaf. First of all can I say that last night’s performance of Diamond Version was rather impressive.
OB: Why thank you
Some of the comments I’ve been reading about the performance today was that some people were not quite used to such a level of performance.
OB: Well I have to say that for us, Diamond Version is a brand new project and we still have big plans with the ideas we’ve collected. So last night we just enjoyed playing. But it’s all still in progress so we’re planning to go into fine tuning and we want to work a little more with the dynamics of the visuals and sounds. But we were definitely quite happy with the situation last night.
One of the things that I noticed from last night’s performance was that as well as overwhelming the senses, there were many subliminal aspects to the performance. The use of images and words and had the waveform representation of the music at the front.
OB: All of that has been a bit of a surprise for us. Not so much last night, but in the beginning we were not really sure where we were going with it all, it all started off in the beginning as an abstract idea. But one of the main ideas was to convey this technical and data overload we have in today’s modern life, as well as idea of “stain” as an abstract. And after 10 years, we also wanted a change from the typical Raster Noton style. That’s why we also collaborated with the record label Mute.
THE TRUE MANMACHINE
I was going to ask why you went with them instead of releasing your EPs straight on Raster Noton.
OB: It was a situation, there was no big plan. It was all just synchronicity. They asked us if we fancied doing something with them and we were thinking about this project at the time. Now it’s only the first step, having this record on Mute, but the ideas behind all of this is just the beginning. That our labels are more collaborating, so perhaps the next releases will be on Raster Noton, perhaps with a Mute artist collaborating.
I understand Diamond Version started off with some impromptu live sets between you and Carsten. How far was this from the usual way your projects with Raster Noton begin?
OB: It was a totally different feel. Normally when we perform and create, we’re usually alone on the stage. For example, with my alias Bytone, it’s a little bit different, it’s more personal. But with Diamond Version it’s more about interaction.
So what do you each being to this project in terms of performance and dynamics?
OB: At the moment, we do almost a kind of sound battle on stage. Out computers are not synchronised, so the idea is that when one of us is playing, the other person can use their pieces of hardware to change their sounds. This idea of real time remixing is what we’re trying to so and this is exactly what we can now do with our computers.
I also came away from last night with the sense of how cyborg the music felt. Many of the images had a feel of dystopian Sci-Fi such as ‘THX-1138,’ and while the music was very machine based, there was the two of you moving away. How important is the idea of the melding of the machine and human aspects with Diamond Version?
OB: Well with Diamond Version, it’s a base idea underpinning it all. We do love this minimalistic idea or music and vision with clean lines, but it needs to have life with it. I’m not a fan of when you’re a slave to machine in your own show. Last night I heard some comparisons with to Kraftwerk for example. I really like what they do, but it’s not enjoyable to see them on stage.
This is because with Kraftwerk it’s the idea of the human being completely subsumed by the machine.
OB: Exactly. With us it’s more about a battle, or a symbiosis. I mean 20 years ago, it would have made perfect sense because all the technology had a very futuristic aspect. But today we are surrounded by machines and it’s no longer special. For me it’s not such much about the equipment, it’s more to how we can bring it all together. I don’t really want to go back in time, and I’m not a massive fan of all these retro styles in music. Granted, I do listen to a lot of the originals in our genres of music, but the ideas with Raster Noton at the beginning were to look forward.
EAST GERMANY 1989 = ICELAND 1989
So there was an actual philosophy behind your music from the start?
OB: Well, we are also responsible for “beats” too, but in the end we are thinking about different topics and influences and for us it was always important to combine different media, such as vision, art, etc. We all grew up in East Germany, and for us at the time it was all normal. It was also like that in the rest of Germany, but I felt it was a bit more special in East Germany at the time during the ‘80s. This idea that if you wanted to do something, you just did it. You didn’t have to study it or learn how to do it.
You know that sounds eerily familiar to what some artists and musicians were saying in Iceland 20 odd years ago.
OB: Really? I can imagine that! For us it was when something came along that was unusual, for example a guitar sound that didn’t sound like a typical guitar. That for us was the way of doing things. The guitarist for The Residents for example, he was never a good guitar player in the traditional way, but he was a very interesting one.
You and Frank (Bretschneider, co-founder of Raster Noton) first met when you started the new wave band AG Giege in East Germany in the late ‘80s. What was the impetus to start that?
OB: It was all about expression. Not so much the idea to go “I want to express something!” but it more trying something in your living room just to see what happened. Maybe the same things happened here in Iceland at the time as well. Today, living in Berlin I can spend all day listening to “nice” entertainment, but I’m not so interested because back then I wanted to do something on my own. There was some kind of expression and anger sure, but we weren’t focused or specialised or anything like that.
It definitely sounds like a post-punk idea, the need to communicate ideas and messages. What were the ideas or messages that you wanted to express? Some of the live performances of the band on You Tube show a lot of surrealism on display for example.
OB: At this time, we lived in a strange, old school dictatorial state, but it was crumbling. It was a big freedom to do something that was a bit dada-esque, with no meaning. To do something just for fun or just for nothing. There was no big story to it. And this was something that we really enjoyed but at the same time it wasn’t just empty fun for its own sake. You didn’t want to give a clear message or statement; you’re playing with pictures and media in a collage style. And I think with Diamond Version there is a similar feel. There’s a message involved that’s a little more political now but without the strong meaning. The music is hard but the message is subtle.
So at what point did you go from the dadaesque performances of AG Geige, to the minimalism we now hear from Raster Noton?
OB: When the Berlin wall fell down, the concepts behind the band AG Geige was a bit dead. Outside influences and events changed the situation. We now had a new orientation. I was more into the beginnings of techno, and Berlin was opening a lot of new club and some really good DJs and I was totally impressed with all of this in the beginning. It was all so new. You could go to the Hardwax record store and there would be white label records with not even any name on the sleeve, often just the title and a number. There was no information, no pictures or campaign behind the record.
At this time I was working in the music industry on the distribution side. We had a record contract for AG Geige, but we weren’t happy with the situation. We wanted more control to produce our own graphics and styles. Computers and their software were becoming low priced and cheap, so we now had some of the tools to become independent, to produce everything we needed. We could burn our CDs, produce our graphic design, as well as communicate with other people. So we decided to do it all ourselves. It was all about the idea of control.
Carsten (Nicolai, aka Alva Noto) joined Raster Noton in the late ‘90s. How did that happen?
OB: Carsten was involved a little in the beginning. We had our studio in Chemnitz and one day Carsten came in for some production work. He came from a fine arts background, but we were impressed at how close both our ideas were. We helped him to open a sub label called Noton. Because Carsten was involved in a much more international network through his art backgrounds, it helped us a lot because we were totally concentrated just in our home town.
Was it literally like two guys in a bedroom?
OB: Yes, pretty much! We were just these typical home boys while Carsten travelled a lot. He had a lot of influences and connections to a different world. In the beginning,
Raster Noton as a label is a byword for simple minimalism and functionality in a digital age. How has the label and yourselves as artists evolved since the early days?
OB: Hmm… I’m not sure what is more important. But I think that the label was more of an idea of how we wanted life, but there was no big five year plan behind where we wanted to be. So it runs like it runs and it happened to run well.
But for sure, we also wanted reflect the market and explore possible futures for the label. For example, in the beginning we spent a lot of energy on packaging. We worked a lot with materials instead of print and graphics. It was more often about the physical form. But then we felt that we wanted more to be musicians, so we then reduced the physical aspect to give the music a chance to breathe.
One of the ways that I feel that the label’s music has evolved is with the human element. The first albums were very functional and minimal, but your more recent albums are much more designed to be body music.
OB: When it came to our music at the beginning, it was so conceptual and that was cool, but we decided that we wanted to bring the dirt and stain into our music much more. But it also comes from experience. For example we’ve seen a lot of multimedia shows where you get the feeling as if you’re in an empty cathedral. You have the stage as a pulpit and everyone is in awe and impressed to the big pictures or whatever. But one day I thought that this wasn’t working
Was there a lack of interaction between the audience and the actual imagery?
OB: With visuals it’s a special topic. If you make it too complex then people can’t take it all in. At the time we tried to use our visuals more in the form of light or a lighting show. There is information in there, but you don’t have to follow it all to get it. It should be possible to move around, smoke a cigarette or even turn to speak to someone.
WALKING BACKWARDS INTO THE FUTURE
The idea of overload is interesting, because today we all experience digital overload in our lives. Do you feel the label is at odds with the current state of affairs?
OB: Overload is exactly the situation that we live in today. You cannot follow things any more. Everything is fragmented. Our brains were evolved for a certain time in the past, but now we have huge speeds in our culture and our brains haven’t quite adapted to this situation yet.
The problem I feel we have with a lot of technology is that we have all these new tools and we can’t find a history with them. But of course future generations, they will pick it up and be more comfortable with it, because they have to move forward. They can’t go back.
I admit that we’re not completely crazy with all this technology that we currently have, especially now that we’re getting older. But although tools may be changing at a quicker and quicker pace, what attracts us to these tools is not so much more different to our grandparents with the rise of electrification.
There’s much discussion today about the stalling of modernism in music due to the rise of technology in how we consume music. We’re in a “hyperstasis” of constant change, but no real progress. Do you ascribe to this idea that it’s more difficult now for music and ideas to move forward?
OB: This is a strange question to answer because on one hand I’m thinking, “Where are the big advancements right now?” Not just with music but with advancements in society. But on the other had there is a lot of innovation. People do ask “where’s the innovation?” but we have to remember that we live in a high capitalistic culture and they need innovation to keep things progressing. If there is no innovation then things start to panic.
Well, Marshall McLuhan said in the ‘60s, “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” We can’t see the progress in the now. We can only view progress in terms of looking back in a historical context.
OB: Exactly. I think that there is a deeper change occurring now and I think what you said is correct. Everything is happening so fast, I don’t know who would be the definitive artist for the last two to three decades, or who can write or create for the future today.
In terms of any future developments, what are you hoping to see with Diamond Version? It definitely sounds that your and Carsten are looking for different ways of working and inspiration.
OB: For us, we didn’t want to repeat our solo efforts and even with our collaborations that we did in the past. We wanted to make music that we’d enjoy, but at the same time something that combined that combined with all the data trash that we experience today. And the ideas it opens up – this morning, we talked about that if you clicked on a popular track on soundcloud, you have all those comments at the bottom, and if it’s very popular, then it’s a constant stream of comments popping up. But when you read the comments it’s just the same word or two that comes up many times. It´s not even about the music. They just say things like, “That’s Awesome,” or “Dudes. You Rock!” We wanted to look at implementing this feeling in our show.
But this goes back again to our digital culture and the way we interact with everything. We’re grazing vulture instead of absorbing it.
OB: Right! This is what we’re trying to play with Diamond Version and the ideas in the band. We want to continue our digital concept. We don’t to predict this. We just want to reflect this situation we’re all finding ourselves in, with visuals that takes what represents our typical communication culture to the extreme.
In East Germany you couldn’t consume that much culture. We had less of everything so maybe I had the chance to see one cool movie a month. Sometimes it was the same movie three times! Even with records, we often exchanged records and we recorded them by tape. Even if it was music that I didn’t like so much in the beginning, but you’d give it three, five, 1ten times a listen. So no today some of my favourite music is kind of music that took time to listen to.
THE PAIN OF BEING A CLOSET ÁSGEIR TRAUSTI FAN
You’ve only been to Iceland for a short time. What have your initial impressions been with what you’ve seen and heard so far at SONAR?
OB: Well first let’s go back to SONAR itself. SONAR is a really big festival and I’ve played it before in Kapstadt (Cape Town, South Africa). I think it’s a really nice idea to export the festival to different cities, but it often depends upon the local situation, the local partners. When I played in Kapstadt, I was a little upset because in the end we played for a very trendy, rich white community and I really didn’t feel like I was really in Kapstadt. But this is not the fault of SONAR itself though.
So the idea is that it’s not so much SONAR itself in exporting it, it’s getting a true feel of the place it’s being exported too.
OB: Yes. In the end I’m really thankful I’m here. For a long time, we’ve been talking about Iceland – “Oh we really need to go there.” And there have been some invitations in the past but it’s rather expensive to get here on both side of the equation. So in the end I’m happy these formats exist. In terms of local artists though, there was one recommendation given to me, and I went and bought their CD today. He’s a very young guy, sounds like Bon Iver.
Ah, that will be Ásgeir Trausti!
OB: That’s him! So I’m interested in hearing him. Of course it’s normal. I cannot be here for more than two days and just play and go back to my hotel room. I’m here like a tourist. We’re even renting a car and we’re going to see the nature and the countryside. And I also came across a really nice record store here. It’s near the church.
That’s 12 Tónar.
OB: Ah yes. I bought some music and CDs there. And then we went to this art gallery called Dead. And that was weird, but I really liked it! I was talking with the owner a little bit about the audience here last night, and my feelings about the lovely building, Harpa, but I’m more of an intense club atmosphere sort of person.
Well I’m glad you love the building.
OB: Yes it’s lovely. I admit it’s not a huge exchange in such a short time, but at least while we’re here we want to go and enjoy ourselves.
Diamond Version’s latest release, ‘EP3’ is now available online through Mute Records. See http://diamondversion.info/